Jeff Hendrick’s journey from fringe squad member to cog in the Irish midfield was all but completed at last summer’s European Championships in France but the Burnley player couldn’t help but baulk yesterday at the suggestion that he is some sort of ‘senior’ pro now.
“I wouldn’t say senior, I was still up for Young Player of the Year (this year),” he pointed out. “I don’t know about senior. I’m one of the youngest here at 25. There is a lot of older players and there is a good mix of ages. A lot of players here have played a lot of games as well.
“We all just sort of bounce off each other really. A lot of people take control and that is the sort of group the manager has built where we’re all trying to, not lead, but give our input. It’s working well so far and we have to keep that going.”
The fact that Hendrick, as well as his fellow ‘Young Player’ nominees Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy, are all midway through their 20s and yet viewed as the young blood in Martin O’Neill’s squad is a worry for Ireland going forward.
It also highlights the importance of that same wedge of players pushing on and making this Republic of Ireland team their own now that the likes of Shay Given and Robbie Keane have finally allowed the curtain to fall on their glittering careers.
Hendrick credits former players of that ilk with establishing the sort of environment that made less experienced men filter into the squad with a magnitude of ease. He was 21 when he first got the nod and his voice has added a few decibels in the four years since.
Euro 2016 will always go down as his coming of age on the international scene but Hendrick has kicked on again at club level since with his big move from Derby County to Burnley where, a brief suspension apart, he has been a virtual ever-present.
“In the last year, year-and-a-half, two years, he has really grown into a man,” said Stephen Ward, his teammate with club and country. “You can tell on the pitch, his physicality, he brings a presence. He is a very strong boy, strong runner.
“He’s an all-round midfielder. Seeing him every day at club level, you also see the quality that he has on the ball and his eye for goal. He’s going to be a massive player for many years to come for Ireland and one that will look to have a big game on Friday.” Life in the Premier League suits Hendrick.
The step-up in class has been handled capably by the former Derby man — much better than Brady, who has struggled for form since joining him and Ward at Turf Moor from Norwich City — with the reduced volume of games when compared to the Championship allowing for more work on the finer details of his game.
“I’m still growing,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot in the last year and I don’t see a reason why I can’t keep learning and improving over the next few years. I’ve just turned 25 so there is more to come from me. I keep pushing myself every day and every week.”
We should all be excited by that. Roy Keane has already suggested that Hendrick is probably Ireland’s most complete midfielder as it stands but the Dubliner accepts that maybe a few more goals would go a long way to building on what it is he already offers.
One in eight over the course of almost 200 games with Derby, two in 23 appearances for Burnley and just one for his country as he approaches his 30th cap are clear indicators of the room for growth for a man who, to be fair. has unleashed some spectacular long-range efforts in green.
“I do like to score goals and even during games I do get forward a bit more without even thinking about it, trying to get into the box to score more goals. It is something that I want to do.
“I have talked about it now for a few months since that (goal he scored away to Serbia last September) and hopefully I get a few more for the country and the club. I am trying to add it to my game but it depends on what sort of formation we are playing and what position I am playing in.”
The opposition has a say in that, too.
Wales can call on Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Shine in that sort of company — and in spite of Ireland’s well-documented injury and suspension problems and Hendrick will have taken another significant step forward.
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